Can the EU Do What It Takes To Make Europe Whole, Free and at Peace?
On November 8, the European Commission (EC) published its annual progress report for the countries that aspire to become full-fledged members of the EU. These reports are supposed to be cool-headed, surgical analyses of convergence with EU rules and norms, but in reality, there has always been a measure of politics. In the last decade, this has meant putting the enlargement process on the back burner.
Russia’s aggression changed everything. The war on Europe’s eastern flank pushed the EU into a quick reset which enabled one of the most consequential geopolitical moves in EU history: recognition that without embracing Ukraine as an integral part of the union, Europe cannot be whole, free, and at peace. In practical terms, for the EC this meant making a recommendation to open negotiations with Ukraine.
At the same time, the recommendations of the November report also highlight the incoherence of EU foreign policy. On Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia the Commission has gone full geopolitical, and rightly so. In the Western Balkans it is business as usual: for example, no reprimand for Serbia for its obvious allegiance to Russia and China.
What is most important now, though, is that the enlargement process has been revived. This is evident not only in the recommendation to open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, but even more so in the decision to grant Georgia candidate status. With this step, the EU is defining the boundaries of what it considers to be Europe.
Ukraine has made an incredible effort in the middle of a devastating war to step up its reforms. The country is fighting for its life as a free democracy, and at the same time its combination of strong political will and modernized administrative capacity has made it the driver of this stage of the enlargement cycle.
Even so, this momentum might not result in a full-fledged enlargement such as the one in 2004. To be able to take on new members, the EU will have to reimagine itself either as a community of concentric circles, or as a much tighter union in which member states surrender even more of their national sovereignty to common institutions. This makes the reform of the EU an existential issue for current members, and one in which they will protect their own national interests first and foremost.
At the mid-December summit, heads of states and governments will review the EC recommendations, and the decision on whether to open negotiations with Ukraine will be central to the EU’s credibility as a strategic actor. Hungarian PM Orban has made his position known. With the EU, nothing is decided until everything is (non)decided.